Sci-Fi Visions of Technology

The season finale of a television series can leave me in one of three states: (1) what a sad/pitiful ending to something that was once great (I rarely see these because I’ll abandon the series once they “jump the shark”); (2) what an awesome conclusion to a beloved show (e.g., The Last Air Bender); and (3) “meh.” The finale of Battlestar Galactica left me in the latter category, leading me to forget why I cared all this while. Also, the complete repudiation of technology – sending the whole fleet to burn up in the sun so as to settle on their new planet with little more than the clothes on their backs – irks me.

To make any sense of the Battlestar Galactica finale I must tell myself that it can only be understood symbolically: that the universe is enmeshed in perplexing veins of mystery, sometimes manifested as “angels.” And that by abandoning technology and scuttling the fleet they are attempting to break the historical cycle of man/machine violence. Now, I am not an unabashed supporter of technology. Technology can be used for amplifying good or ill, and I’m not sure where I stand on assessing the balance. And personally I believe I am the most content when living simply and mindfully, a state best achieved when removed from the addictive agitation and anxiety of the wired life. Why, as Emily Gould admits to, do we feel compelled to check e-mail late at night, or as the first waking act of the day? Therefore, I tried to be mindful of my use of gadgets. Similarly, a friend recently told me how his new Blackberry has massively improved his ability to schedule clients, but he could no longer use his phone as his alarm. He found it too tempting to check e-mail in bed, and banished the Blackberry from the bedroom and purchased an actual alarm clock.

But on Galactica they were going primitive. It is implied that they will integrate with the pre-linguistic Homo sapiens the already populate the planet. It is remarkable that the whole fleet agreed they would cast off technology. What of medicine and the basics of food production? Perhaps they will face a plague, or, more likely, bring one to the natives of the planet. Do they know how to farm and hunt? The ships could at least have been used to make plowshares and arrowheads. And what of their culture? These people are the last carriers of a galactic civilization: terabytes of art, music, philosophy, and history sent into the sun.

Granted, humans frequently abuse technology to horrible ends, but by abandoning technology all-together I expect that within a few years they’d be living a cave man’s life governed by the technology of the club and the logic of brutal survival. And, I don’t see how they have done anything to prevent the historical progression and periods of slavery, colonialism, despots, and global war. Civil society, the rule of law, equality, and surviving child birth and childhood should not be cast aside so lightly because they came with such great costs.

Coincidentally, I characterize my own take on technology by way of a sci-fi philosophy quite different from Ronald Moore’s religious and Luddite tendencies. I’m closer to being “Bakuian” in reference to a recent – and otherwise not very good – Star Trek movie, one in keeping with the skeptical modernity of Gene Roddenberry. In that universe, the Ba’ku people fled the violence and technology obsessed galaxy for a simple agrarian/artisanal life.

However, it isn’t as if they abandoned technology completely, but mastered it, or rather mastered the human impulse to abuse it. This is seen when Capt. Picard meets with Ba’ku leaders about an apparently violent outburst from Data, an otherwise benevolent and wise android:

PICARD: The artificial lifeform is a member of my crew. Apparently, he was taken ill.

TOURNEL: There was a phase variance in his positronic matrix which we were unable to repair.

PICARD: [puzzled]

ANIJ: I think the Captain finds it hard to believe that we’d have any skills for repairing positronic devices.

SOJEF: Our technological abilities are not apparent because we have chosen not to employ them in our daily lives. We believe when you create a machine to do the work of a man, you take something away from the man.

The Baku learned to use technology appropriately. (Not surprisingly, while I sometimes feel alienated from gadgetry, I’m very keen on the “appropriate technology” movement.) Of course, we don’t know how they did this. These people are the descendents of defectors form a high-technology society. And one of the plot revelations is that those attempting to oppress them now, the Sona, are in fact the Ba’ku children who got fed up with simple living, went off to explore the universe, and turned into creepy (skin transplant and tightening) technology fetishists.

Of course, all of this is fiction. But ultimately, the problem with the military, agricultural, or consumerist “industrial complex” is not a technical one, but a human one – just as is not keeping the Blackberry in the bedroom. I don’t think this problem is solved by simply regressing and abandoning all that one might have (hopefully) learned.

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